Florida might be a tax friendly state, but it’s not very privacy friendly — at least not for the kiddos.

Orange County (home to Orlando) schools recently re-upped a partnership with SnapTrends, a software that monitors student social media activity.

Karen Turner writes at the Washington Post:

SnapTrends collects data from public posts on students’ social media accounts by scanning for keywords that signify cases of cyberbullying, suicide threats, or criminal activity. School security staff then comb through flagged posts and alert police when they see fit. Research suggests that 23 percent of children and teens have been cyberbullied. Studies connecting social media and suicide have not shown definitive results, but there has been research that suggests that cyberbullying leads to suicide ideation more than traditional bullying.

Orange County Public Schools adopted the SnapTrends program as part of a “prevention and early intervention” program. After the Newtown, Conn., school shootings in 2012, the school participated in a sweeping technical review with law enforcement and state emergency experts with a focus on safety. They recommended some sort of social media monitoring program, saying that threats can sometimes be spotted on social media postings. “We felt we needed to deal with these vulnerabilities,” Shari Bobinski, who manages media relations in the school system, told The Washington Post.

Orange County schools said that since implementing the software last year, it has run 2,504 automated searches, leading to 215 manual searches by school staff. Details of the 12 police investigations that stemmed from searches in the past year have not been divulged by the school system. The school system told the Orlando Sentinel that it doesn’t want public details of the program to interfere with its effectiveness.

Bobinski, however, shared one anecdote from last year. The software flagged a female student for using the keyword “cutting” and the phrase “nobody will miss me.” Since the software gets a huge number of flags for words and phrases like these, the security staff delved deeper, investigating more posts by the student. They discovered that she had two conflicting social media accounts: one that told the story of a happy, normal girl, and the other of someone suffering from suicidal thoughts and depression. The school staff alerted police, who conducted a welfare check at the student’s home and informed her father. She eventually went into treatment.

That’s all well and good, but what students do outside of school isn’t the concern of the school. Yet the continued monitoring of their social media habits allows schools to keep tabs on kids after hours. Social media posts hardly tell the whole story, after all.

Shear also expressed fears of the inevitability of highly intrusive monitoring, such as collecting data on students during after-school hours or off school property. A software flag would require school staff and possibly police to track a student more closely. In Bobinski’s story of the suicidal student in Orange County, the original flag was set off on school property (SnapTrend’s “geofencing” technology limits monitoring within a locational boundary), but investigators delved into her public posts from after-school hours as the checked into her mental health status.

For Shear, the allocation of $18,000 in school funds to implement SnapTrends that could be used for digitally minded education is particularly vexing. “[Schools] are not providing children the tools needed to protect their reputation, their privacy and to understand the law. Everything that these kids are doing online might have repercussions down the road,” he said.

“I think that’s something that’s missing in the conversation,” Shear continued. “I think that these companies are preying on the fears of these parents.”

Anything posted to the internet ought to be assumed public. But the problem with the Orange Counties of the world is that they blur the line between the school’s responsibility to monitor child behavior and the obligation of the parents. And it’s the parents who are paying for this overstep.

Follow Kemberlee on Twitter @kemberleekaye


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